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Mapping the Archipelago

Sunday, June 1, 2003

Anne Applebaum.
Gulag: A History.
Doubleday. 671 pages. $35.00

Ominously, within just three months of the 1917 October Revolution, an exasperated Lenin proposed sentencing “the millionaire-saboteurs traveling in first- and second-class train compartments” to “half a year’s forced labor in a mine.” In August 1918, following an anti-Bolshevik rebellion in Penza, the great man called for “mass terror against the kulaks, priests and White Guards” (and the “unreliable”), specifying that these enemies of Progress were to be “locked up in a concentration camp outside town.” By Christmas 1919, there were 21 such camps; a year later, 107. (Their number would eventually quintuple, each “camp” comprising hundreds, even thousands, of nameless lagpunkts.) Only in February 1992, nearly three months after the rotted hulk of the ussr had slipped into history’s vasty deep, did the last camps at Perm belatedly disgorge their inmates.

The Gulag witnessed the birth pangs of the Soviet Empire (let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) — and its death-throes. Mutually parasitic, neither Gulag nor Empire could survive, let alone thrive, without the other. The duo comprised a curiously Siamese entity: One was but half of two; when one dies, so too must the other. Maintaining the awful majesty of Empire required slave labor; Gulag supplied it. Gulag required slaves; Empire supplied them.

The Bolshevik regime and its punishment apparatus are often compared to, or mentioned in the same breath with, its Nazi rival and the concentration-camp system. Fair enough, though this rough-and-ready approach tends to ignore differing national “mentalities” and distinct histories. The two resemble each other in many respects, to be sure, but in their respective attitudes towards those considered un-German or un-Soviet there is little that is similar.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History brings some needed rigor to such debates. The general idea of the concentration camp may have been a common one, she writes, but the nature of any particular camp system “depended on the particular country, on the culture, and on the regime.” Applebaum’s sustained examination of the Gulag appears at a time in which facile equations of all “genocides” is increasingly common.

As a general proposition, too much reliance is placed on Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism. Much like her description of the arresting figure of Adolf Eichmann as “banal,” Arendt was far too glib in assessing Nazism and communism as almost identical phenomena. Applebaum herself briefly cites Arendt in concluding that the Soviet and Nazi camp-systems were “related.”

This will not do. Whereas Nazism and communism are “related” in that they share some broad characteristics, the Holocaust and the Gulag are incomparable. The former was single-mindedly and ideologically directed at the physical and metaphysical annihilation of Jewry. In contrast, the incarceration and murder of Gypsies, homosexuals, Catholic activists, and communists proceeded in intense, if patchy, phases before petering out before 1940. Indeed, by the end of the war, roaming Gestapo squads had even moved on to executing “ordinary Germans” amid Berlin’s smoky ruins for disloyalty to the Führer. The suffering of those minorities also persecuted by the Nazis is in no way diminished by the fact that the Jews were the major target of Hitlerism.

Though 3 million or so people died in its camps (out of the 28.7 million forced laborers who “passed” through them), the Gulag never operated as an extermination machine. Initially, the Gulag served to amputate dubious “politicals” from Sovietized society. Startlingly, for some writers and artists, according to reminiscences Applebaum has uncovered, confinement could, in a sense, even be liberating, especially compared to the squalor and misery of post-civil war Russia. They were allowed paper and ink, received presents and money from home, and were not (officially) obliged to work. When too many criminal elements were introduced into their cells, they gathered together and protested — surprisingly successfully — that their rights as political prisoners were being violated. (Only after 1945 did the number of “counter-revolutionary” politicals first become the majority of the total population. Unfortunately, we lack memoirs or poems left by incarcerated felons.) Even on the White Sea Canal project, the prisoner-run newspaper Perekovka (“Reforging”) was filled with readers’ letters complaining about shoe shortages, bad managers, the “squabbling and swearing” emanating from the women’s barracks, and unfillable quotas.


This gulag glasnost did not last long. By the late 1920s and early 30s, after they had destroyed the economy, the Soviet leadership realized that in the Gulag, labor was plentiful, docile, and cheap. And out there, lurking beneath the Arctic tundra and carpeting the Eastern expanses, beckoned the coal and oil and timber that could be bartered for foreign currency.

So long as costs were minimized and output maximized, the Gulag’s return on investment would be more than sufficient to keep the gleaming new Soviet Union a going concern. Henceforth, the Gulag’s primary function was to preserve a Potemkinesque Empire through economics. The mass murders that occurred generally consisted of shootings in the woods. Though to the inmates of these diabolical places this is a mere scholastic distinction, it is important to note that — unlike the Nazi death camps — the Gulag, put bluntly, had an interest in keeping its prisoners alive (the economically viable ones at least).

To this end, as Applebaum documents, nkvd inspectors filed reports complaining about the ghastly living conditions, “illegal” work hours, and poor medical care in the camps. One such inspector was annoyed to find that prisoners arriving at the Prikaspiiskii camp in Azerbaijan in December 1940 were obliged to sleep “beneath the open sky on damp ground.” Camp commanders received an angry missive from Moscow in March 1942 noting that many of them were not allowing prisoners their nightly allowance of eight hours’ sleep. Regulations also stated that prisoners were allotted a new towel each year, fresh sheets biannually, a pillowcase every four years, and a replacement blanket every five. The assumption, not always accurate, was that they would still be around to enjoy them. Another commandant, Lazar Kogan of Dmitlag, cautioned uncomradely cooks about serving “pig slops” instead of “Soviet meals.” He felt the food being prepared was too “often tasteless and bland.” The Gulag, too, provided medical care in clean hospitals for ailing prisoners. What was unique about the Gulag, recalled one inmate, was that “you were expected not only to be a slave laborer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn’t just want to oppress us: they wanted us to thank them for it.”

In their perversely paternalistic way, camps were also expected to oversee their inmates’ political reeducation. That was the task of the Kulturno-Vospitatelnaya Chast (the Cultural Education Department, shortened to kvch). Every camp was directed to have at least one kvch counselor on hand, as well as a small library (filled with suitably improving works). Often, there was a “club” that organized theatrical performances, chess tournaments, “creative activities,” edifying political lectures, and concerts. One priceless document Applebaum has excavated from the archives (the quality and depth of her research, throughout the book, is breathtaking) catalogues the repertoire of an all-singing, all-dancing troupe of nkvd minstrels. That Top 10 list in full:

1: The Ballad of Stalin.
2: The Cossack Meditation on Stalin.
3: The Song of Beria.
4: The Song of the Motherland.
5: The Fight for the Motherland.
6: Everything for the Motherland.
7: The Song of the nkvd Warriors.
8: The Song of the Chekists.
9: The Song of the Distant Frontier Post.
10: The March of the Border Guards.


The nkvd’s concerns about prisoners’ welfare seem rather touching until we remember that the inspectors wished to ensure that the slaves were kept in rude enough health to fulfill their mounting work norms. As for improving the food and providing medical care, these benefits were extended for the utilitarian purpose of helping viable prisoners recover sufficiently to return to work. As one inspector calculated, “from October of 1940, to the first half of March 1941, there were 3,472 cases of frostbite, thanks to which 42,334 working days were lost.” He was most agitated about the resultant drag on economic output. Regarding these “work norms,” they were absurd. Teams of prisoners could be required to mine 5.5 tons of coal each day — impossible even for the hardiest of Stakhanovites among them, who were rewarded with extra rations as they worked themselves to death — or to dig nine cubic yards of mud, or to fell trees without saws.

Once prisoners became too weak to keep up, they were left to die. Life in the slave-clogged Gulag was all for one and every man for himself. While awaiting their fate, these inmates — like biblical unfortunates cast out into the wilderness — were shunned by their fellows. They became, in camp lingo, fitili (“wicks,” as in those atop a candle, soon snuffed out) or, less metaphorically, dokhodyagi (“goners”). These zombies suffered dementia, night-blindness, incontinence, scurvy, and pellagra. Utter dehumanization and self-degradation was their lot.

In a particularly engrossing chapter, Applebaum describes the prisoners’ “Strategies for Survival.” Unlike the terrible kingdoms of Chelmno and Treblinka, “in the end, prisoners survived. They survived even the worst camps, even the toughest conditions, even the war years, the famine years, the years of mass execution.” Prisoners either learned to live without pity within three weeks of arrival or were doomed. Those who bribed their way into administrative tasks, or could obtain tobacco, or mugged the weak, or collaborated their way into becoming pridurki (“trusties”) stood a far better chance of survival than the general laborers or the obstinately civilized. (There is no comparison to the Jewish Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose average life extension was four months and whose tasks were more gruesome.)

Was choosing to work with camp authorities in order to survive an immoral act? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who himself flirted with the idea of becoming an informer, certainly thought so, for pridurki supervised the zeks and skimmed their rations: “Who short-weighed Ivan Denisovich’s bread? Who stole his sugar by dampening it with water? Who kept fats, meat or good cereals from the common pot?” Others, such as Lev Razgon, disagreed. Some trusties helped others: “It was not that they were indifferent to the Ivan Denisoviches who went out to fell timber or that they felt estranged from them. Simply, they could not help those who did not know how to do anything other than physical work.”

Since most prisoners, no matter their talents, were drafted into the hard-labor brigades, the key to surviving the Gulag was learning how to give the appearance of working; it was a practice known as Tufta. A Polish woman recounted that the champion fish processors in her facility were merely the “cleverest cheaters.” Instead of packing jars full of herring, they threw in a few bits and tossed the rest away, thus exceeding their impossible work norms and earning full rations. Another inmate, detailed to build camp bathhouses, picked up an invaluable lesson in how to disguise sloppy workmanship: fill cracks in the structure not with concrete, but with moss.

Now magnify these individual examples and apply them to the Soviet economy at large. Several thousand half-empty herring jars shipped from some seaside lagpunkt, replicated billions of times in every industry with the same lackadaisical attitude over some 70 years — it amounts to systemic fraud and shoddiness from top to bottom. First, a bathhouse with freezing air whistling through the moss-covered cracks; eventually, owing to the multiplier effect, airliners falling from the sky and apartment buildings that collapse.

The Gulag version of the communist-era joke, “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work,” might have been, “we pretend to work, they pretend we are working, and Moscow pretends not to notice the pretense.” Indeed, Applebaum cites an impressively detailed and exact 124-page report, dating from 1940, on the production figures of dozens of forestry camps, factory camps, mines, and collective farms. Moscow must have been pleased to see that the total value of Gulag production that year was an Enron-like 2,659.5 million rubles. It is a fantastic (literally) figure.

Generations of Soviet leaders distorted reality to fit their socialist preconceptions; the Gulag faithfully played along. It was the Empire’s new clothes. In an Alice Through the Looking Glass way, the Gulag reflected the communist system as a whole: From the gold mines of Vorkuta to the collective farm camps of Uzbekistan to the prisoner-operated Krasnoyarsk nuclear power plants, a beautiful, rationally planned economic ideal was inevitably subverted by chaotic reality.

Stalin, above all, recognized how heavily his empire was addicted to the Gulag narcotic. To forestall collapse, he signaled the end of the “early release” scheme for well-behaved, productive workers as early as 1938, when he addressed the Supreme Soviet: “Could we not think of some other form of reward for their work — medals, or such like? We are acting incorrectly, we are disturbing the work of the camp. Freeing these people may be necessary, but from the point of view of the national economy, it is a mistake . . . we will free the best people, and leave the worst.” It was not until late in the war, by way of contrast, that Germany would come to depend on Speer’s slaves, who were mostly engaged in producing munitions.


Leaving aside the surreal image of prisoners pathetically accepting Productivity Merit Badges instead of their liberty, the phantasmagoria of the Gulag would be the death of the Empire. By the 1950s, owing to the camps’ fictitious output’s not offsetting outlay, it was clear that the Gulag was a massive financial liability once the costs of labor (that of the guards, primarily), fraud, food, clothing, medicine, and accommodation were factored in. It was not a Free Cashflow Positive concern, as I believe they say on Wall Street. Decades later, when the entire Soviet enterprise was reckoned to be bankrupt — morally and politically as well as economically — the terrible mirage finally dissolved.

Applebaum’s structuralist orientation, I think, slightly underplays the role of communist ideology and the Russian mentality in the formation and maintenance of the Gulag in favor of this economic interpretation. Nevertheless, in the end that is a hopelessly minor cavil to what is, by any lights, a magnificent history colorfully written, expertly organized, shrewdly observed, and exhaustively researched. If Solzhenitsyn was the Gulag’s Gibbon, Applebaum is its Boswell.